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No swagger for the debtor

By Pat Okedinachi Utomi
23 January 2017   |   3:26 am
Beyond false modesty I truly feel that those like me, whose calling provide more of a public voice or a bigger slice of ears, tend to be more fairly acknowledged than those who work more assiduously...


Beyond false modesty I truly feel that those like me, whose calling provide more of a public voice or a bigger slice of ears, tend to be more fairly acknowledged than those who work more assiduously in the ivory towers or “Aso Rock of their contemplation” in the words of Reuben Abati. The all over the place public intellectual like myself, by contrast, gets to be called L’homme engage – the intellectual as man of action. I dash from one speaking place to the other and get given two or three plaques a week for contributing to the public good, leaving table tops and suitcases in my study with more than a thousand plaques from nearly 40 years of talking and doing, regarding the Nigerian condition. But when years ago the Lagos Chamber of Commerce nominated me atop the list of private sector people for national honours list I politely told then LCCI Director General, Sir Remi Omotosho that I did think I required one, especially as I felt it inappropriate to sign a nomination form. A true award should come the way the call from Guy Murray-Bruce’s came; the honoree being taken completely by surprise. When Omotosho pressured me and I eventually asked my PA to apply my electronic signature an hour to the deadline, my point was proved.

The day before the formal announcement, as one presidential aide told me, the President struck the name off because he was told Patitos Gang members had referred to his government as Kabiyesi democracy. When the subject came up in a chat with a former minister who also came from academia, he said the same President had done a similar thing when he was nominated. People had to intervene with him to restore his name the following year. I begged that no one do such on my account as I would reject it if they did.

Yet I cannot but feel good about the call from Guy just as I felt when in 2009 Silverbird Television and Vanguard newspapers nominated me among “Nigeria’s Living Legends” to be voted for by the public. To my shock I ended up in the top 10 along with the Wole Soyinkas, Chinua Achebes, two former heads of state, and Pastor Adeboye who polled tops. Nobody even hinted me such a thing was in the offing. It was as satisfying as Prof. Sam Aluko in Akure and Prof. Wole Soyinka in Lagos calling Press Conferences to announce they were endorsing me for office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2007. All I have for generosity so underserved is gratitude beyond measure.

To get such honours without holding positions of public office Nigerians seem to like to adore says there is much more to the Nigerian spirit than we often acknowledge. Today as always I feel so proud to be a Nigerian. It is pride that is nourished by the diversity of my upbringing, having been born in Kaduna, baptized in Jos and raised in Maiduguri, Kano and Gusau before secondary education in Onitsha, Ibadan and University education in Nsukka at the University of Nigeria.

Gratitude in this autumn of my time of being is something that is recurring because I see much clearly, with deeming sight the love in the tongue of people who stop you at Airports, Malls and in places of worship to say a thing of kindness or commendation. Even in the admonition of critics or vituperation of those who despise one had gain in nice lessons, proof positive that all things work together unto good. I have scooped much more than just a good feeling from some of these kind comments. One such ended my search for an appropriate epitaph, the fitting words on my Tombstone. It came from Prof. Juan Manuel Elegido, Vice-Chancellor of Pan Atlantic University. He had been in Management meetings just about every Monday for the first 15 years of the Lagos Business School.

I was to give the last of the two yearly Goddy Jidenma Foundation lecture series and as has been the tradition, from Ali Mazrui down, a dinner to honor the speaker precedes the lecture. Guests tend to make comments about the speaker there. When Elegido rose to make remarks I was taken up by how much his remarks summed up what I hoped I could be rather than what another had observed. I was not surprised he talked about my work ethic and how being able to manage with few hours of sleep has favoured my output. Then he hit a homerun when he said: it should be no surprise that Pat is in high demand for boards and positions of collegial decision making. Having been on a management team with him for many years I can say that Pat is “completely without ego.” All that matters with him is building consensus to get things done. Would love that on my tombstone.

I have also been fortunate to learn that titles do not translate to legacy. My great teacher was the resistance to military rule after the annulment of the elections of June 12, 1993. I wrote the article “We must say never again” which triggered the founding of the Concerned Professionals. Few realize that the first Chairman of CP was Sam Oni, the second was Tola Mobolurin as the third was Lawson. I was a member of the steering committee who was willing to sign documents when others feared the Abacha regime which “took no prisoners” would come hunting for. In later years I saw that the books that highlighted the heroes of democracy had recognized my role, even without title. I have used this often to encourage young people to avoid the Nigerian trap of power replacing purpose. Same for money.

There have been many who have lamented my seeming inability to use my so called connections to cumulate the lifeblood of today’s Nigeria, money.

If I may dare to say, the founder of the organisation offering me the Lifetime Achievers Award, Ben Murray-Bruce, Senator of the Federal Republic had about a decade ago asked me pointedly. Why do you hate money? I assured him it was difficult for a man that has been called the ultimate for evangelist of free enterprise to hate money. He told me most people could point to a few who were tycoons off my coattails, yet I lived so modestly. I told him about delayed gratification and how if my effort get many more to create wealth, society and I, would be better off than if I just created a bubble of my own comfort. Ubuntu, I told him, ruled. I am because we are. That conversation inspired a book of cases of companies I helped to found and build: Business Angel as a Missionary. In all there were too many people I was indebted to. When you owe so much, swagger is foolishness.

It is clear, therefore, that a person with my level of indebtedness cannot dare to find swagger. I am owned, almost in the manner of medieval serfdom, by those listed above and many more not listed. I can only hope for and pray for a jubilee year so I can say that my liberation is near at hand. I trust that the yoke and burden of this debt is light.

I am thankful for the simple life of a teacher, manager, social entrepreneur, business Angel and citizen. If such a person can be so honored there is hope for all.